Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gormley and Decisions, Decisions

In The Sunday Times I interview Antony Gormley and I write about the science of decision making. Links here tomorrow. 
Sunday, here they are: Gormers and decisions.


I have never been able to assess works of art in terms of their politics. It always seems like a category error, as in 'I don't like Hamlet because I don't agree with it.' I'll make a brief exception in the case of Clint Eastwood's superb Gran Torino. It is patriotic, but in such an ambivalent way that, if they are paying attention, it will irritate the right; it is liberal but in such a politically incorrect way that, if they are paying attention, it will irritate the left. I like a nice flat, even landscape of irritation as a backdrop to my politics. I guess this doesn't win Oscars - this film won none and should have had three considering the competition this year. But I often wonder how good Eastwood the director actually is. For some reason, I can't quite tell. I mean obviously he's very good, but is he John Ford? He's as good a craftsman, but is he as great an artist? Is he too much of a craftsman? Are his films too finished and, therefore, lacking the essential open-endedness of greatness? I just don't know. Do you?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Twitter 2

Okay, I just signed on to Twitter. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).

File Under 'Urgent!' and Do Nothing

Some years ago I had a file labelled 'Urgent! Action Now!' Into this I had tossed things that were, indeed, urgent. But the fact that they had been tossed into the file at all indicated another aspect - they were, in my mind, too hard, in fact, insoluble. Filing them was a way of making myself think I had achieved something whereas I had, of course, achieved precisely nothing. Then we moved house. The file vanished and I forgot about it. It turned up several years later. I opened it fearfully, the problems inside had all gone away. Doing something was the same as doing nothing as far as these insoluble problems were concerned. That, it seems to me, is the story of the present crisis in a nutshell. The problem is insoluble. American sub-prime was just the beginning; now we have Europe's own sub-prime in the form of the collapsing eastern European economies. Everybody is running around crying, 'Urgent! Action Now!' and then tossing things into a file. The non-solution is to lose the file. Move on from this collapsed and absurdly unstable form of turbo-capitalism and start again. When we hear that message, the recovery will have begun. Don't hold your breath.

Greatest Rambling Blog Post Ever

I was just glancing at one of those rambling diary blogs - 'Got up and wondered what to post about as I was brushing my teeth, picking my nose and thinking.....'  - when I suddenly realised that the great blog poem was written forty years before blogs were invented. This is how to do it. (Warning: may cause grown men to weep or, at least, it should.)

How to Shock Fred

So the government signs off on Shreddie's pension 'pot', then leaks it and demands the money back in a traditional Mandelsonian attempt to fix the news agenda. Judging by Shreddie's letter, I'd say he was shocked by this. Welcome to politics, Fred. Succeeding in shocking Fred now stands as the most impressive achievement of the Brown administration.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gwyneth Starts War

Oh no! Gwyneth has set back Franco-American relations by a decade. Her latest GOOP emission consists of her Paris restaurant hotel recommendations. Of The Ritz she says, 'The place is just beautiful and the service is pretty flawless FOR FRANCE.' I can see the ambassador clutching his head and talking to his fourth Jack Daniels. This is a nuclear armed nation and they're funny about hotels and stuff and very funny about Americans. Surely, Gwyneth, nice Mr Obama has enough on his plate...


Radio 4's Today show and Channel 4 News are now both using Twitter as a tool of news coverage. I will not have anything to do with Twitter because there is an outside chance I might like it and the last thing I need in my life is a new way of wasting time. I joined Facebook because I was researching something or other, but, beyond simply saying yes to anybody who wants to be my friend (I think this is the correct game theory thing to do), I am largely inactive. But what is it about Twitter? It sounds like a 24/7 group therapy session for logorrheac (not a word but it should be) neurotics with exhibitionist tendencies. I am very much opposed to neurotics - this is, I admit, a Caliban in the mirror thing - because of the way you get drawn into their world view which is precisely what seems to happen in Twitter. Furthermore, once you are a Twit, you must feel an obligation to Twitter otherwise you will receive wounded Twitters from other Twits. Or maybe not, I don't even know how it works. Since it's now on C4 News and Today, I guess it's the future and I am, as ever, being borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Thursday Round-Up

I have become very fond of the phrase 'Zombie Bank' and use it at every possible opportunity. Our own leading Zombie Bank - there I go again - has only lost £24.1 billion. I love that '.1'. How do they know? And, meanwhile, Zombie Banker Fred seems to have taken his pension early. This is insensitive in view of the fact that Quentin Tarantino is about to release the worst film ever. What went wrong with QT? He only had one film in him. He made that twice and then descended into Kill Bill etc.. On top of that stomach stapling has soared. People are so upset they are turning to food. And, finally, your host is once again short-listed in the press awards. So, apparently, is everybody else, but if Elberry does one of his goat dances I should be okay. Zombie Bank.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ivan Cameron

David Cameron's relationship to his disabled son, Ivan, was the finest thing about the man.

Magpie Guy and Social Networking

Scientists are so unreliable. I put Nature Network in The Sunday Times list of 100 Best Blogs on the basis of some very good, lucid material I'd come across. Unfortunately, since then I seem to have been reading nothing but lumpen humour and fey, self-involved whimsy. Contrary to rumour, I'm all for science, I really am, but I may have to cut his particular feed. I'm also all for Ben Goldacre on The Guardian, who spends his days pointing out that most of what passes as science in the media is just junk. Go, Ben. I was, however, taken aback to see him on Newsnight. It turns out he looks and dresses like that fuzzy-haired guy from Magpie. This, Ben, is bad science. He was there to pour cold water, and, I fear, dandruff, on the idea of Susan Greenfield and Aric Sigman, who was also in the studio, that social networking is rotting our children's brains. Goldacre rightly pointed out the research did not stand up this idea. But the debate was wrongly framed. I don't know what these things are doing to children's brains but I know what connectivity in general is doing too mine - shortening my attention span, distracting me etc.. What they should have been discussing was me, not that nebulous, guilt laden entity we call 'kids'. Sigman, in particular, seems to be trying to launch a moral panic and Goldcare plainly hates moral panics unless they are peer-reviewed. This was, as a result, an arid confrontation. The truth is that hyper-connectivity has done something to me, something not altogether to my liking. Not to be able to discuss this in terms other than moral panics or learned papers is absurd.

Not Dumb Movies

Zoe Williams says, 'This tesselates with the political point...' I know the feeling, you fall in love with a word and you just have to use it. I think I'm still supposed to get 'maieutic' into The Sunday Times as a result of a ten-year-old bet. Somehow, the opportunity never arises and, anyway, I don't like the word any more. Leaving that aside, Williams goes along with the offendee I heard on Today. Women are badly portrayed in movies etc. As I said, so are men, only worse. But Williams goes further and says movies are not for adults so we should give up on them. Her evidence is the list of the top grossing movies of this century. But surely this is like giving up on literature because of Jeffrey Archer. I've just watched Steve McQueen's Hunger and rewatched Joanna Hogg's Unrelated on DVD - pretty grown-up films and both better than Slumdog Millionaire by a very wide margin. Of course, they were barely distributed. But, if people had gone to see them in large numbers, they would have been. Furthermore, the net quality of current films and the financing of grown-up cinema of the future would have been improved. In other words, giving up on cinema because of a few dumb blockbusters is a mechanism for ensuring you are right about the dumbing down of films and for putting serious movie makers out of business. It's a kind of circular tesselation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tax Property Now

I am inclined to agree with Polly that property gains should be taxed. This is partly for the good reason that she's probably right - Britain needs curing of its property fetish - and partly for the bad reason that I'd love to watch the political tap-dancing required to get this one through. Also, it's exactly in conflict with the current - meaning of the last five minutes or so - government policy which is to get people buying houses by any means possible. Of course, I'd expect corresponding tax reductions elsewhere.

Europe versus America

One of the themes in the comments on this post is Europe versus America. This is becoming commonplace. Critics of Obama's economic plan say he is attempting to Europeanise America and Blair was often attacked for trying to Americanise Europe. In large parts of America, Europe represents quasi-communism and, in large parts of Europe, America represents mad dog capitalism. The vast sums of government money that are now being paid out to keep our economies afloat have, I suppose, sharpened the imagined contrast. It's imagined for two reasons. First, Europe is even more diverse than America so to speak of a European Way in politics and economics is even more meaningless than to speak of an American Way. Of course, there are phases in political leadership but it's foolish to take these as displaying some intrinsic aspect of national character. Second, historically, what would now be seen as the European Way has been the American Way and vice versa. Nevertheless, in the heat of this moment, the idea that Europe and America are in fundamental conflict has taken hold. I don't think we should go down this road.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Frozen Hearted

So I go into Ryman to buy some, you know, stuff, the sort of stuff that can only really be described as stuff. The girl at the checkout wants me to spend another £1 on a Red Nose Day pen. How can I refuse? 'You could give it to your grandson or granddaughter,' she says brightly in an attempt to warm my heart. The organ in question freezes solid.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

John Bolton and the Decline of America

From John Gray's as yet unpublished collection Gray's Anatomy: 'The US is in steep decline, its system of finance capitalism in a condition of collapse and its vast military machine effectively paid for by Chinese funding of the federal deficit.'
Frank Rich: 'For all the gloomy headlines we've absorbed since the fall, we still can't quite accept the full depth of our economic abyss...'
As I've said before, the last thing I want is the decline of America, all the alternatives being so very much worse. But it does seem to be a nation in denial, not least among the anti-conservative Republicans who rose to power under Reagan and flourished under Bush II. I've been watching the superb BBC4 series Iran and the West. I was happily discounting the usual anti-American bias - it isn't actually that bad - until John Bolton appeared in the second programme. Has there ever been a more foolish and inept man at the highest levels of world diplomacy? Cheney's puppet, he scuppered his own case by refusing to do what he was supposedly paid to do - diplomacy. Bolton is the political equivalent of one of those now not quite humbled enough alpha male bankers. I am not anti-American myself, but, sometimes, I can see why others are.

Bloggery 2

And there's the rest of that 100 best blogs list. This, for some reason, has my name on it. I was merely one contributor and I wrote the introduction that appeared last week. But, anyway, it's brilliant, amazing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ricky Gervais

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times Magazine - the only interview with Ricky Gervais you will ever need to read. Link here tomorrow. You'll really have to buy the dead tree edition as the photos by Dirk Rees are sensational. Here it is!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Gordon's Birthday Box

It's Gordon Brown's birthday! He's 58. Have a good one, Gordo. Oh and somebody said to me last night you should have guaranteed all deposits and let the banks fail. Would have have worked? Who knows? Whatever you did clearly hasn't. Anyway, here's a little birthday box of news. 
Do not, Gordo, let anybody talk you into going into earth orbit. It is fantastically dangerous. There's now a 1 in 185 chance you'll crash into some junk.
The universe is beyond the grasp of any intellect. I find this consoling but you probably don't.
Beer sales are down because of guilt. That's odd, I thought everybody knew it was your fault.
Finally, I was thinking of buying you this, the most pointless, geeky gadget I have ever come across. What do you think?

Milton Keynes Discovered off Moroccan Coast

Plato writes a column for The Sun on the discovery of the lost city of Atlantis - 'a perfect rectangle the size of Wales' - by Bernie Bamford using Google Earth. (You weren't expecting me to say that, were you?) Bernie says: 'It looks like an aerial map of Milton Keynes. It must be man made.' Milton Keynes man-made! Bit of a stretch that, Bernie. Plato, as usual, just drones, 'I told you so.'

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Symmetry of the Contemporary

Symmetry can be so satisfying. 'And yet when you see what technology is doing these days,' writes Andrew Sullivan, 'how can one stay too pessimistic?' Here's how. Yes, Facebook, Twitter etc. cause cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia. As Christopher Ricks once said to me, 'What you give with one hand, you take away with the other.'

RBS Idiots

If your views of bankers are in danger of mellowing, you should read this letter sent to Nick Cohen in response to his article in the Standard. 'RBS, however, wasn't full of idiots - they were just concentrated in the executive management.'

Serene Nonlocality

It's always nice to hear - as one does every couple of years - that the foundations of physics have been shaken. This article explains the latest shaking. It is lucid, long and - maybe this is just me - strangely bracing. The 'nonlocality' of the world induces a certain serenity.  I suppose this is contemporary theology, but, like all the best theology, it reflects experience. 
PS And you probably need to read this as well.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Amiel Comes Out for the Kulaks

There are people who say Guantanamo Bay is like Auschwitz and, from the other end of the political spectrum, there is Barbara Amiel saying the excoriation of the bankers is like the Soviet persecution of the Kulaks and Mao's slaughter of the intellectuals. A sense of proportion is a wonderful thing.

More Radio I'm Afraid

You are required to listen to the radio again tonight. This time it's Radio 3's Night Waves at 9.15, one of the best talk shows there is largely because they provide wine and they let conversations run. I shall be discussing Jonah Lehrer's book The Decisive Moment.

Monbiot and the Space Telescope

I find this story humiliating. Yookay made a few bits for the Kepler Telescope. What is humiliating is that this is even mentioned. Once we would have been angry that we didn't make the whole damned Kepler. It's like that Australian news angle on the inauguration - Michelle was wearing Aussie mascara or some such. But that's Britain now, a mildly irritating entity with a few good engineers and an unusually high proportion of terrible bankers. When Obama looks east, I suppose he sees the electoral necessity of Ireland, then Germany and France and then, well, Gordon Brown. This reminds me I was going to post on George Monbiot's complaint about the lack of an English parliament - if we'd had one, he says reasonably enough, there would never have been a vote in favour of the third runway at Heathrow. The Scots are more than happy to send more planes flying low over West London. I don't know if I care about an English parliament or not. But what struck me was Monbiot's insistence that he is a global citizen and that he is indifferent to England. (His ensuing point that he doesn't know what England means is unconvincing.) How can one be indifferent to the land of one's birth? One may hate it or love it but indifference hardly seems to be an option. The term 'global citizen' indicates the problem; it is a familiar trick of contemporary, secular thinking is at work. This is the trick of the atomised self. One can be indifferent to one's country if one thinks of oneself as an abstract unit that could have been born anywhere. Monbiot born in Peru would still be Monbiot. But, of course, he wouldn't. Like it or not, the human self is made, in large part, by the context in which it is born. Monbiot is very English as am I. And neither of us makes space telescopes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Welcome to the Hotel Nowhere

Brilliant - convert oil rigs into hotels. Just the thing for people who don't actually want to go anywhere. I like to think the rooms arriving on the container ship already have people in them. Bankers perhaps, they like water skiiing, or so I'm told.

A Blundit Speaks

And, since you ask, I shall be talking about bloggery live on the Air America Radio Network at 8.30m London time this evening. It will also be streamed live at The show is Doing Time with Ron Kuby. I have a new career as a blog pundit, a blundit. 

Fast Food: The Counter Cycle

I mean I get the logic, I really do, but I still find it weird. Fast food is violently counter-cyclical. Domino's Pizza is booming and Kentucky Fried Chicken is recruiting. I gather both are eyeing the Chanel and Hermes shops in Bond Street as possible new sites. Burberry will go to Burger King. Obviously.


Having brought the blogscape and the Appleyard Adjustment triumphantly into the world, I take condescending pleasure in the neologising attempts of others. Take, for example, the Tate Triennial exhibition. Inventing labels for exciting new movements is, of course, the primary function of the mandarins of contemporary art. Indeed, the label is all that matters. This is where Charles Moore goes wrong. He actually went to see the show. This is quite pointless. Once you know the name - Altermodern - you know all that is essential. You can, of course, deepen your knowledge by reading the manifesto, but this is so dumb, so facile and so weirdly dated that you might be put off. It's as if M Bourriaud went to the dentist, picked up a twenty-year-old copy of The Economist and misunderstood it. With this infirm foundation, I doubt that Altermodern is going to become a household word.

The Price of Spring

Delecting (not a word but it should be) what felt like the first day of spring in London, I sat in Kensington Gardens to watch the buggies and joggers. There were snowdrops. I walked down the east side of Green Park, staring at the various gilded palaces of sin that line Queen's Walk and watching a springer spaniel being driven to delirium by a tennis ball. The daffodils were almost in bloom. Then I stopped at a pub in St James and got charged £2.05 for a tomato juice. Once it stops being such an egregious rip-off (not long now), London can relax and be beautiful again.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Lost Decade

So the net worth of the average American household is now less than it was in 2001. This gives support to my own view that the growth figures of Brown's years as Chancellor should be recalculated, stripping out the contributions of financial services - now massively negative - and the property bubble. I think we'd find we are back where we were in 1997, or soon will be. A lost decade.

Jade Goody

The aetiology of cancer, probability and the sheer number of celebrities should make the story of Jade Goody unsurprising. But it is.  Also, she is going to sell her wedding and death to provide for her children, a move with which one cannot argue even though it makes one uneasy. Why? Because, I think, it seems to sustain the idea of the pursuit of fame as the answer to all life's problems, even death.

Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an unusual film in that it is 165 mins 30 seconds too long. Reducing it to 30 seconds and then replacing what remained with, say, one of those B & Q ads would give it a degree of authenticity and emotional punch entirely absent from the version currently in cinemas. I suffered until the bitter end, largely because, like everybody else in the audience, I was curious to see how Brad Pitt would play an embryo. Sadly, this pleasure was denied us.
*Coincidentally, an email arrives this morning from Tom Laming telling me that the original story - only 29 pages - is very good.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

God Bless America 4

I finally caught up with the episode of Mad Men - noted by Nige - which stars that beautiful, beautiful book, Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency. I cannot imagine such a thing happening on British television. So, once again, God Bless America. These are the O'Hara lines from Mayakovsky which form the interior monologue of Dan Draper at the end of the show.

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting and modern.

The country is grey 
and brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of 
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do
perhaps I am myself again.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Bloggery

Today in The Sunday Times I offer my world-changing thoughts on BLOGGERY. You are, therefore, required to buy six copies of the dead tree edition and bombard the web site with hits from midnight. Link will be here tomorrow. And here it is! Please note, the top 100 list is not mine alone, I merely contributed.

Diet News

Diet Coke makes us fat and cooking makes us clever. I had originally heard the first from Nassim and the second from our mutual diet guy Arthur. Unlike Gordon Brown, I am usually ahead of the curve. But, as a wizened old hack once told me, 'Too early is as bad as too late.'

The Nuremberg Defence 2

Christopher Caldwell says the bankers were not malevolent but mediocre. Unfortunately, he doesn't say what he means by 'mediocre'. I don't think he means what I mean, which is that, before the Treasury Select Committee, Andy Hornby and Fred Goodwin in particular looked and sounded like decent middle management material but emphatically not somebody you'd want to run a bank. Also Caldwell goes along with the Goodwin-Hornby line that they bore the same losses as their shareholders. I presume this refers to shares they owned as a result of bonus schemes - in which case, they have born no real losses at all. Overall I think what we have here is a sophisticated version of The Nuremberg Defence - everybody was at it, I had no choice, it was the system that was at fault, not me. This would be a mildly mitigating circumstance in the case of a car maker or engineering company, but banks are different. They exist and we give them our money because they are assumed to be repositories of a certain special kind wisdom. One essential function of that wisdom is to detect dangers or wickedness in the system and withdraw. If they can't do that, then they are not qualified to be bankers and, if they don't do it, then they should be excoriated and exiled from the City.
(This reminds me that in the course of my first job as a financial reporter, my editor assured me that the City would have nothing to do with wrongdoers, they would never work in the Square Mile again. 'Jim Slater?" I said. He harrumphed and said no more.) 

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Expanding Credibility Field

Well, well, another bank has utterly screwed things up and found it has lost several billion more than it thought it had lost. Who are these people? What are they for? I think I can answer that last question - they exist to come up with words like 'impairments' and 'market dislocation'. Brilliant, they actually sound as though they mean something more than cock-ups and vertiginous plummet. It's worth noting the comments on Alphaville. One says Alan Johnson will be Prime Minister in two weeks. Why? Because 'Someone within the Lloyds Bank Organisation must have email evidence of undue government pressure forcing Lloyds to skip due diligence and hitch itself to a corpse.' Pretty credible that.

Welcome to the Singles Summit

Tyler Cowen leads me to this story which, in turn, leads me to the 4th Annual Rocky Mountain Singles Summit. Other than 'Aaaaargh!' it's hard to know what to say about this. It doesn't appear to be an orgy - the Lock and Key Party sounds very tame - and it does seem to have an alarming amount of self-help - though why anybody should seek self-help from guest speaker Mark McIntosh, whose life seems to have had very little in common with a bowl of cherries, remains a mystery. You have to pay an additional $20 to take part in the speed dating - steep, I think, shouldn't it be no-win-no-fee? - and I don't think Attracting the Love of Your Life with Hypnosis - one of the seminars - strikes quite the right note. In fact, to my mind, it sounds perilously close to date rape. I also think Rate Your Date Before You Mate - via handwriting - is a touch calculating. The latter seminar also teaches you to 'learn two secrets to making yourself more date-able by changing your writing'. I think I know what they are: 1)stop writing like you 2)start writing like Keats.
PS And this seems to stand up the New York Times line that recessions are good for romance/sex. Or, alternatively, the media are just looking round for easy beat-ups on Valentine's Eve.

Use the Force, Luke

Once again, Kettle excels and even manages, at the end, to quote Conrad. In the words of Henry James, 'I'm a total sucker for that kind of posh stuff.' Kettle sees that Brown is like Luke, Han and the Princess, desperately trying to stop the walls closing in and crushing him. Unlike them, he will fail because of his abject lack of self-knowledge and his dismal 'it's not our fault, gov' litany, the default claim of Labour politicians down the ages. All you really need to know about Brown's record is the Business Monitor paragraph quoted by Jeff Randall - 'Despite enjoying 11 years of growth between 1997 and 2007, the UK ran a budget deficit of 1.7 per cent of GDP over this period, fuelling a fiscal time bomb. Faced with the financial burden of bailing out the banking sector and kick-starting the economy, the budget deficit will to an unsustainable 9.3 per cent of GDP in 2009.' Face it, Gordo, we're a basket case. Now, I'm no economist, but I want to know something. Large parts of the growth in GDP claimed since 1997 we now know to be delusory. In financial services the growth has been entirely wiped out - indeed, the banks have been largely destroyed  - and I would guess the cataclysmic fall in asset values has negated most, perhaps all, of the wealth Brown claims to have created.  Should we not, therefore, recalculate the growth figures on a realistic basis, stripping out the property bubble and the zero sum nonsense of the City? I'm only asking.

Morrissey: An Assessment

Here' s question: is Morrissey any good? I ask because he has a new album out - lyrics 'so horribly sour you could make cottage cheese by leaving a pint of milk next to the speakers' - and because I have absolutely no idea whether he is any good. In fact, I've never listened to a whole Morrissey song and what fragments I have heard were merely overheard. He is a void in my pop cultural awareness. There are many such voids, of course, but none seem quite so gaping as Morrissey. I must, in the eighties, have been doing something else. Perhaps I was happy - I gather that disqualifies one from liking Morrissey.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Genetic Crit

So they are appently searching for Pushkin's DNA on the sofa on which he died. (There's one sentence I never thought I'd write.) The implications for Lit Crit are momentous. Oh, sorry, no they're not.

Stoppard on the Recession

My jaw having nowhere else to drop to, I realise Tom Stoppard captured my feelings about bankers, the recession, Brown etc in Jumpers - 'Credibility is an expanding field... Sheer disbelief hardly registers on the face before the head is nodding with all the wisdom of instant hindsight.' Just so.

The Soul of Sussex

One thing you can be sure of in Sussex - you will meet a man in cavalry twill trousers, yellow waistcoat and houndstooth check sports jacket who collects old MGs. Guess what? Yesterday, in Sussex, I did.

The Nuremberg Defence

So, here we go, Brown picked one of the world's worst bankers to be deputy head of the FSA in spite of allegations that he had sacked somebody at HBOS because he had warned, correctly, that Crosby was taking insane risks. Brown did so on the basis of a KPMG report apparently clearing Crosby, a conclusion from which KPMG has now backed down. Worst of all, Crosby drives a BMW X5. Meanwhile, the recession is even worse than we thought. Brown keeps saying we are leading the world - it turns out he means to hell in a handcart. The banking bastards keep resorting to their version of the Nuremberg Defence - we had to do it because we were following orders and, anyway, everybody else was at it, which is another way of saying, 'I'm so stupid, desperate, feckless and utterly devoid of conscience that I'll do anything.' And on the matter of bonuses, about which Brown is desperately trying to do nothing, I like the question from Barney Frank - 'What wouldn't you do if you didn't get a bonus? Go home early on Wednesday?' Recessions of the severity described by Mervyn King bring down, among other things, governments. I repeat my forecast - Brown will be gone by June. Yet, with Labour down to ten men and their goalie in a coma, the Tories still can't seem to score. Instead, they're playing naughty geeks.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fat, Idle Pukers are Okay by Me

I just heard yet another professional offendee on Radio 4 complaining about the portrayal of women in recent films - Bride Wars etc.. I didn't catch her name, I didn't want to. She said she felt insulted by shopaholic, airhead, man-grabbing heroines. Oddly enough, I don't feel insulted by the drunken, dopehead, puking, fat, idle heroes of recent bad boy movies - in fact, part of me identifies with them, they certainly make me laugh. This is because I am just honest enough not to be a professional offendee and just sane enough not to identify myself as a member of a sexual tribe. But, if we are playing this game, let us demand a survey of 'negative gender stereotypes' in all the movies of the past 20 years. Actually, don't bother, I know the result - 90% negative male portrayals and 10 per cent negative female.

Eggs and Everything

Everything you have ever been told about eggs is wrong. Actually, everything you've ever been told about diet is wrong. Faced with such revelations, you might reasonably conclude that everything you've ever been told about anything is probably wrong.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Eroticism of the End

Thanks, Andrew. Balls is wrong, it's much worse than that. Is it just me or is the thrill of reading about the end of the world erotic?

Bankers and Balls

Well, that went quite well and the apologisers did rather break ranks with Affectless Bob on the matter of bonuses. Now, presumably, they will have to hand back their own ill-gotten dosh. Yeah, right. Meanwhile, Ed Balls has broken ranks with Brown by saying everything is terrible. Larry Elliott says this is a gift to the Tories but Danny suggests Balls meant to leave the Cameroons 'ideologically beached'. If so, then I find I am right again - it's a curse - and Balls is Prescott, a man who has risen to the top of politics on the basis of no political talent whatsoever. 

Australian Competence

I do like Australians and, as a result, I find what is happening now peculiarly painful. So here, at my expense, is a tribute to their startling competence. On November 2nd I parked illegally on Lawson Street, Byron Bay, New South Wales. I got a ticket. I was, of course, driving a hire car - a Nissan X-Trail, since you ask, not bad but dull - and, living as I do on the other side of the world, I did not pay the fine, complacently assuming that would be that. Today I receive a penalty notice from the State Debt Recovery Office - A$80, since you ask. They had tracked me through the car hire company - Hertz, since you ask - and found me here in the bit of Notting Hill Gate that Nige always claims is actually Kensington. I have ignored parking tickets all over world and this has never previously happened. Good on yer, mates, I'll pay online now.

Affectless Bob

The chairman of Barclays Capital, Bob Diamond, a masked man seemingly devoid of affect, defended City bonuses to Jeff Randall last night. Meanwhile, Guido puts his case for the defence. I suspect there's an illusion abroad among bonus defenders to the effect that this is all the usual grievance politics - the poor whining about the rich - and that, by some magic. the market they call free will soon assert itself. This is a grave miscalculation. What has emerged about bonuses indicates that they were a fundamental social injustice and a cynical rigging of the market.
Diamond and Guido either evade or miss the only point that matters - the structural point. As everybody, me included, has pointed out bonuses are a one way bet. You can win but you can't lose. Diamond kept droning affectlessly about Barclays bonuses being performance related. Well, large parts of them aren't and, anyway, they're not truly performance related in that traders don't have to pay if they fail. This makes it logical for traders to take short terms risks that may - actually, will - in the medium and long term hurt both the bank and society. The case is overwhelming for a compulsory split between investment and retail banking. Diamond, I notice, kept going on about the virtues of the 'universal' bank, but then he makes £20 million a year out of this grand scam. Furthermore, why do banks in particular have such stratospherically generous schemes? Chris Dillow suggests they are bribes to stop traders plundering the firm - the banks are, in fact, being blackmailed. This, if true - and Dillow, for me, is the best at this stuff - makes matters much worse and would provide further evidence for the conclusion that is finally sinking into the popular imagination - the banks were run as market-rigging machines for rewarding traders and executives and ripping off shareholders, depositors and taxpayers. The truth is that no other conclusion is now possible. Sorry, Guido, this is real politics; sorry, Affectless, these are real feelings. It's over. Or should be - your best hope is Brown's dithering and his tendency to grovel to the City, which, I admit, could yet prove to be your salvation.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Gordon Brown is Hologram Shock

It's true, unfortunately so are you. Also space-time is fuzzy/grainy. Talk about stating the obvious.

Chris Hale's Why Reading Matters

Tonight on BBC4 there's a documentary called Why Reading Matters. It's by occasional Thought Experiments commenter Chris Hale. It's brilliant, all about how neuroscience confirms what the best of us knew already - that reading is irreplaceable, that it lies at the very heart of our identity. So put down that sodding Wii, watch and then read.

Good Things

This blog is too negative, if not downright bitter, so here are some positive, sweet things:
2)Beat the recession bailiffs by renting out your house for porn movies.
3)Memes are dead.
5)Chinese Salsa. More Chinese Salsa.
6)A woman, 56, swam the Atlantic.
7)Above all: Keep Calm and Carry On

A Band of the Bland Leading the Bland

Awards ceremonies are fine as long as you approach them in a condition of Zen-like detachment, devoid of all desire, hope and fear. So, sitting in the lotus position and chanting quietly to myself, I rather enjoyed what I saw of the Baftas and never once felt the need to point out that almost all the awards went to the wrong people. Meanwhile, my mind dwelling on emptiness, I note that Coldplay, an easy listening beat combo much enjoyed by cyclists, won two Grammies. Time to re-align my Chakras or some such.

A Reluctant Post on the Singularity University

I have been trying desperately not to post on the Singularity University. Unfortunately, I have just discovered they use the word 'cadre', a word I hate since, for me at least, it immediately evokes the death of 70 million Chinese. Not only that, they use it in the phrase 'a cadre of leaders'.  The post had to be done. I just hope setting up this university will keep them busy and unable to do serious damage.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

More More Bloody Bankers

The professions were invented to let the middle classes partake of the profits of business without partaking of the risks. In that context, I had, until today, thought the banks' big mistake was to turn themselves into businesses rather than professions, taking on risks they did not understand. But a remark of Nassim's  - 'profits were privatised, losses were socialised' - has just made me realise I had got it wrong. The banking crisis was brought on by hyper-professionalisation. Bonuses for short term gains were simply the most extreme case of making profits without taking risks. This is why I think there may be merit in clawing back bonuses rather than just stopping further payments. We should see the behaviour of the banks, not as a business failure about which people might say, 'it could happen to anyone', but rather as a gigantic professional fraud about which people should say, 'the guilty must pay'. In that light we can see more clearly what actually happened and what must be done. 

More Bloody Bankers

In The Independent on Sunday, Maggie Pagano, a friend, plugs the Facebook Make Bankers Accountable campaign run by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, another friend. (I am a global hub, a sorcerer of connection.) Meanwhile, Obama having capped pay in newly-supported banks at $500,000. Darling-Brown sets up an 'independent inquiry' into bank remuneration (great word, suggesting, as it does to my ear, 'manure'). Ha-bloody-ha. Brown can't make decisions and bad bankers were his best pals, kicking this into the long grass is so much in character it's embarrassing. Also in character is the fact that it won't work. All the papers are now bashing bankers, inspired by the realisation that a) this is just and b) bankers are despised by the public. The depth of this loathing cannot be overstated and it will get deeper as unemployment rises. In this climate, the political temptation must be use them as the sole scapegoats to divert attention from the countless other horrors we face. No doubt this is on Mandelson's mind. Unfortunately, he's only got Brown to work with and he can only say one thing over and over again in answer to every question. (I see Mandy as a movie director who used to work with Cary Grant (Blair) and now finds himself with some klutz who once had a walk-on part in Emmerdale.) Guilty bankers - most of them by the sound of it - should be humiliated, impoverished and, in some cases, imprisoned. (The latter is the humane option as it should prevent them being lynched, assuming their fellow prisoners don't read the business pages.) Then we can get on with remembering how to make real stuff like the Germans.
And - can't wait - the bankers are appearing before the Treasury Select Committee on Tuesday. Perhaps they'll ask Fred the Shred what, in view of the fact that he's plainly bald, he has on his head. But really what I want them to do is this.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Read the Block's Chip

Read this now or you will be banned from the internet.

Kettle on Blair/Obama

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Martin Kettle is one of our finest political commentators. Here he does it again. I would never have thought of this but it's obvious once you read it.

News from Stalingrad

On most days Stalingrad is the BBC, but sometimes it's the North Somerset Primary Care Trust. Meanwhile. Jeremy Clarkson has apologised for calling Gordon Brown 'a one-eyed Scottish idiot'. Hair-trigger offendees representing blind people had objected. (In fact, thinking about it, if all organizations had the wit to take on ranks of full time offendees, our present employment problems would be solved.) At the end of Channel 4 News Jon Snow apologised to anybody who had been offended by their reporting of Clarko's remarks. Amazing - the meta-offence has at last arrived. Anyway, let me advance a theory - and I have not spoken to the very tall Top Gear presenter with the shocking bad clothes and haircut (I'd like to apologise at once to all tall people, Top Gear presenters, clothes makers and barbers) so it is only a theory - let us say Clarko did this deliberately to take the piss out of the swivel-eyed offence goons at the BBC. (Obviously I'd like to issue a fulsome apology to all swivel-eyed goons who don't work in the offence industry or, indeed, to those who do and and whose swivelling eyes and mental deficiences are no fault of their own and should not in an way result in discrimination of any kind ever.) Just a thought. I watched Caroline Petrie last night. She was smart and gently amused at the whole thing, but also firm. All she did was offer to pray for an old lady. And someone, somewhere, some unspeakable anti-life jerk, had her suspended. What a tosser (and I'd like to apologise at once to masturbators everywhere). But the thing is that, in every age in every dispensation, however free it may be, there will always be petty chinovniki whose only ambition is to make the world worse. We should spit at them at every opportunity. (If you are offended by this post, please register your complaints at the usual place, then, of course, eff off and die.)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Golliwogs, Race and the Oiks

So her Maj has been flogging gollies.  Once again I ask, who knew? Well, I did, sort of.  Long before all this Carol Thatcher stuff blew up, you will have read of the remarkable and enduring prevalence of golliwogs here on Thought Experiments. Somehow gollies slipped under the anti-racist radar and now they lie around the place like Triumph Heralds or branches of Woolworths - who now remembers them? I don't doubt that they are, in the current climate, offensive and distasteful. The image of blackness they represent is of supine, happy idiocy. But it is peculiarly vile that the creepy little thought police who still infest the BBC used them to a abuse a woman whose only real crime in their eyes is probably that she is Margaret Thatcher's daughter. I don't know Carol Thatcher but I know people who do and the word is she is nice, if a touch dim, and it is inconceivable that she is a racist. So, while acknowledging contemporary sensitivities, it is worth asking: do golliwogs really pose such a threat to social order? The truth is that in a sane, colour-blind society they would not. You could buy toys representing any old race, religion or creed in any old stereotypical way and nobody would bat an eyelid because nobody woud care. But we are a deeply racist society, not just because we discriminate against minorities but because we all discriminate against each other by insisting on this hypertrophied awareness of difference. Not to notice differences that should be irrelevant is to risk being accused of bigotry, which is absurd. It happens to me and I'm honestly incapable of racism. And what's the big thing about Obama? He is black. In fact, he's as white as he is black. There are good, historical reasons for being sensitive about race. But, in the Thatcher case, it's the BBC oiks who are racists. They are the ones who are oppressed by an inhumane awareness of irrelevant difference and by the priggish and hypocritical urge to use it as a weapon against innocent victims.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


I have had an unconscionably discombobulating day. This may be something to do with the fact that yesterday I began reading Frank Harris's novel The Bomb which Aleister Crowley described as 'the best novel I have ever read'. This probably means one is cursed just for touching its pages. It is actually pretty good - apart form that curse thing, of course. I was going to post on this Carol Thatcher golliwog thing - there, I've said it - but Nige posted it all and posted it first. Oh well, I suppose I beat him to the Belisha Beacon. But there you go. I'm discombobulated. It's what blogs are for.


Good grief! Pontin's still exists. Who knew? I remember TV ads starring Fred Pontin in which he gave us the old two thumbs and said, 'Book early!', meaning, as we, in a more cynical age, know, 'Smooth my cash flow!' The company is doing well out of the recession. At Pontin's these days you can rub shoulders with assorted hedge funders, Damien Hirst, Fred Goodwin, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, Dick Fuld and some minor royals. Bernie Madoff wanted to be a bluecoat but was turned down.

What, Exactly, is Wrong with Graham Greene?

Luxuriating in the chance to read something I didn't have to, I picked up Greene's The Quiet American. I've not read Greene for years and all I remember of the experience was a vague feeling of distaste. I assumed I was missing something - hence The QA. The distaste returned almost at once. Readable as the book was in its way, I didn't enjoy a minute of it. Yet it possessed so many solid virtues - mostly well-realised characters, a formidable sense of place combined with some fine, lyrical descriptive passages and a subtle balance of dialogue and action. So why the distaste? Well, the narrator, Thomas Fowler, is intended to be an unpleasant man, but, having read Shirley Hazzard's superb memoir, Greene on Capri, and, long ago, reviewed a very sympathetic biography, it seemed clear that he was, in fact, Greene. Meeting Greene would, I suspect, have been like meeting Fowler - an informative but essentially lowering experience. Many great writers are, of course, very nasty, but, in this case, there seemed to be a connection that prevented the book taking off. I have the same problems with Woody Allen films. But the real complaint I have is the excess of plot - not a horizontal excess, but a vertical one. The plot hangs like a threatening sky over the book. Unlike Conrad - obviously an influence on Greene - who created plots that ticked over beneath the surface of the action, Greene makes plots of which one is always oppressively aware. One notes the pieces being moved about the chess board with irritation and, when it's all over, it's just, like your average thriller, over. And that's all I have to say about Graham Greene.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pigeon Legs

This man, however, will outlast even Updike. I love the 'undeclared eggplant'. Aubergines are like that, in my experience, they give nothing of themselves.

John Updike 2

I know there's been a lot written about Updike - but has there been enough? If, for example, Barack Obama or Tony Blair had died, the coverage would have been Updike squared if not cubed. Yet the death of an age's great artist is surely infinitely more important than that of one of its politicians. Do you know, for example, who was Prime Minister when Dickens published Bleak House? Of course, you don't (it was the Earl of Aberdeen... who he?). I suppose, at the time, Forgotten Aberdeen, as we must now call him, would have seemed much more important than the publication of a novel. Not now, Bleak House stands like a rock and poor old Forgotten doesn't stand at all. That's the point - except for a few rare exceptions, all politicians are of their time and nothing more. History diminishes them by turning them into pawns of its hindsight narratives. But, for centuries, Updike will be read and discussed. Our strutting, fretting leaders will, along with us, have vanished.

Snow Latest 3: Jerry Fodor

By a remarkable coincidence - actually it had to happen - I just picked up a book by one of my heroes, Jerry Fodor. It is called The Mind Doesn't Work That Way - of course, it doesn't - and the introduction is entitled 'Still Snowing'. Here's why:
'The bottom line will be that the current situation in cognitive science is light years from being satisfactory. Perhaps somebody will fix it eventually; but not, I should think, in the foreseeable future, and not with the tools that we currently have to hand. As he so often does, Eeyore catches the mood exactly: ''It's snowing still,' said Eeyore, '... and freezing... However,' he said brightening up a little, 'we haven't had an earthquake lately.''

Snow Latest 2: The Escape from Individualism

Having strapped on my water-powered jet pack,  I made a quick survey of snowed-in Britain. I came to a startling conclusion - snow can save us from ourselves. Consider this from Stuart Jeffries - a paradisal scene of benevolent bobbies in snowball fights with jolly schoolchildren straight out of E.Nesbit's Complete History of the Bastable family, the book that influenced me more than any other. And then consider this - our children are eaten up with malevolent individualism. The conclusion is inescapable. We need more snow, much more. We must build Jerusalem in England's white and pleasant land.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Snow Latest

After a brief skirmish, the British Army surrenders to a platoon of Swiss soldiers driving Citroen 2CVs with snow tyres.
The staff having failing to turn up for work because of incapacity due to shock at the sight of 'millions of white things falling from the sky', the entire National Gallery collection is stolen by a couple of Norwegians on skis.
The Swedish chef takes over Gordon Ramsey's show.
Canadian paratroopers seize Godalming.
Assorted Russian tourists, builders, hoodlums and oligarchs occupy all London pubs - no change there then.
More snow news to come.

Bruce 'The Ego' Parry Versus Simon 'The Storyteller' Reeve

Last night on BBC2 there were two exploration shows. The first was Bruce Parry's Amazon. Wiry and objectionable, Parry's shtick is that he finds remote tribes and takes part in their lives and rituals. Last night, deep in the jungle (as we were repeatedly told), he encountered the Achuar people. They are mistrustful of whites but, after long negotiation, they let Parry and his crew in. This climax of his stay with the Achuar was taking part in a ritual involving the consumpton of hallucinogenics which are supposed to give you 'your vision'. Parry said his ego stopped him finding his vision. Actually, his ego had stopped him getting the story. Having established how isolated this tribe was, Parry then showed us a group of people wearing football shirts and with a large, accurately marked football pitch. He could have told us more about these people by getting an answer to one question - 'Where did you get your shirts?' - but he didn't. The next show was Simon Reeve's Explore in which Reeve travelled down the Great Rift Valley. He asked questions, he analysed, he got stories, good ones. Parry, sentimentally, suspended the third person perspective, his analytical imagination, and turned the Achua story into the Parry story. Reeve stood back and saw much more.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Not Davos

I was about to post on Davos in the light of these comments. I particularly liked the fabulously dumb suggestions of J.P.Morgan's Jamie Dimon - how could one possibly trust a banker with such a name? - and Blackstone's Stephen Schwarzman - okay name but Blackstone is a private equity group so no kudos there. But I have decided not to post on Davos because, embarrassingly, I seem to write the same post every year - '07 and '08. So this year, in Zen-like humility, you have a post about Davos that is not about Davos.

Jonathan Miller Resurgent and Jeff Threatened

February comes in like a lion. First, in The Sunday Times I interview Jonathan Miller and, second, as I slept, Frank drew my attention to my own paper's splash. Great heavens, Jeff may be booted out of the Lords. New rules may eliminate peers with criminal convictions. As you may recall, we have had a certain amount of innocent fun at the caperings of 'Lord' Archer. Perhaps, at times, I have overdone it. But the simple truth is that whenever I do not have a thought in my head, Jeff, somehow, leaps right in to fill the void. But will it be the same if he is not a 'Lord'? Something will have been lost, some aspect of the man's higher absurdity. Of course, we shall still have his blog to provide the consolations of his wondrous prose for those of us unable for whatever reason - embarrassment, fear, exhaustion, discernment, a functioning ear, status anxiety - to read his novels. But Jeff not being a 'Lord' is like Groucho not being a Marx or Tommy Cooper not wearing a fez. His identity will have been compromised. And why? Simply to make the House of Lords appear a serious, respectable place in the eyes of our foreign friends. But we are happy with it as a, to borrow from Clives James, 'transit camp for dingbats'.  We need a campaign - 'Keep Jeff noble!'